Just What Is Marty Walsh up to, Anyway?

The former mayor's identity is inextricably tied to Boston. How soon will he be back—and how prominently?

Photo illustration by Benjamen Purvis / Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Seaport Hotel, attached to the World Trade Center, feels like an anchor to an older Boston amid the dizzying swirl of change along the waterfront. So it was, perhaps, an appropriate venue for former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to re-emerge into the civic life of his beloved city.

It was January when Walsh, still U.S. Secretary of Labor, showed up at a New England Council breakfast to address a room of some 450 business and political heavyweights. Seated around crowded tables, guests were so excited he was there that Walsh could barely press his way to the stage as they accosted and waylaid him. “It was like a wedding,” said one person who was in the room, “with every table clamoring for him.”

After nearly 23 years in local politics—16 as a state representative from Dorchester and seven as Boston’s top elected official—it had been hardly two years since Walsh had resigned as mayor and lit out for the swamps of Washington, DC, to work for President Joe Biden. This speech, though, would be among his last as labor secretary—just a few weeks later, Walsh was hired by the Toronto-based National Hockey League Players’ Association to preside over its union.

Still, despite his far-flung employers, Walsh has remained deeply rooted in Boston. As labor secretary, he never moved to DC and instead chose to live out of Washington hotels during the work week and then return to his Dorchester home on weekends. He never stopped getting his hair cut at Boston Barber & Tattoo Co. on Salem Street in the North End, and never ceased attending his local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Walsh also has family here. In addition to his mother, the 55-year-old former mayor now has a grandson in Boston; Lauren Campbell, the daughter of Walsh’s longtime partner, Lorrie Higgins, recently gave birth to a boy. Unsurprisingly to those who know him, Walsh is utterly devoted to the kid. “He’s just a baby now,” Walsh tells me, “but he’ll easily be able to get whatever he wants out of me for the rest of his life.”

Vice President Kamala Harris swore in two-term Boston mayor Marty Walsh as U.S. Secretary of Labor, with his partner Lorrie Higgins beside him, on March 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. / Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Walsh is clearly no longer the daily presence in Bostonians’ lives that he was as mayor, yet at the same time, he can’t quite quit this town. “Once you are mayor, you really love the city that you’re fortunate enough to lead. And that doesn’t stop when you stop being mayor,” says Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, who developed a close relationship with Walsh when she was mayor of Salem. When I spoke to Driscoll, she had just run into Walsh at a Patriots’ Day weekend event several days earlier. “I still see the same Marty,” she says. “He’s like a comfortable shoe.”

By all appearances, Walsh seems to be in the Boston public eye more and more these days after consciously stepping back to avoid detracting from the current mayor, Michelle Wu. He was, for instance, at the Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport in February, helping open a training center for hospitality workers; he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Dorchester Little League game in April; he spoke at the Suffolk University College of Arts & Sciences’ commencement in May; and he’s been spotted at numerous events, formal and casual, all over Boston throughout the year. Plus, he still gets calls from Bostonians seeking help—on the very same cell phone number he’s had since his days as a state representative. He gladly connects them to housing assistance, drug or alcohol treatment, or any other support they might need. “I will do that until the day I can’t anymore,” he tells me. If anything, he laments, he received fewer of these calls during his time as Secretary of Labor, presumably because people thought he was too busy or too removed from the city.

Boston is no longer Walsh’s responsibility—that’s a fact. He no longer runs this town, represents it, or even works here. Yet he is still very much a part of it—and, Boston being Boston, that’s more than enough to stoke interest and spark speculation that he’s up to something more than meets the eye, including a possible political comeback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’s 2021 NFL Super Bowl champion Tom Brady poses with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at the White House on July 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Writing about Walsh’s January breakfast speech at the Seaport Hotel, the Dorchester Reporter observed that the former mayor “appeared to offer a defense of his administration” in response to criticism delivered by Wu days earlier in her State of the City speech. The truth is it doesn’t take much to set Boston’s easily agitated political hive-mind abuzz. Walsh is thought to be hostile to Wu, who started campaigning against him in 2021 before Biden tapped Walsh for a cabinet appointment. Wu’s reform agenda is implicitly—and sometimes openly—a repudiation of Walsh’s tenure.

Unsurprisingly, some people—especially those hoping for a business and development-friendly candidate to take on Wu in 2025—interpret Walsh’s recent public appearances as a move back toward the political arena. “Wu is setting the table for him,” says one local financial leader who is critical of the current mayor’s policies. “She’s fucking up so badly that she’s rolling out a red carpet.”

That is probably wishful thinking. Those who know Walsh say they can imagine future scenarios that might lead him to run for office again, but dismiss the idea of a mayoral challenge. Walsh himself certainly isn’t looking to stoke speculation. “I want her to be successful,” he says of Wu, adding that the two have spoken “a couple of times” since she took office. “The mayor needs to make her own mark in the city. There are programs that we changed a little bit that [former Mayor Thomas] Menino did. Mayor Wu is doing the same thing. That’s what you do. Then, as a former mayor, you offer support anywhere along the way. You don’t get insulted by it.”

Walsh and former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn before a 2017 Frozen Fenway game between Boston College and Providence University at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. / Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Trashing his successor isn’t in Walsh’s DNA and doesn’t fit his image of the proper role of an ex-mayor—one he’s constructed from examples forged in his own memory banks. He remembers Kevin White during the Ray Flynn years and Flynn while Menino was mayor. He saw them as remaining active in the city they loved without being overly critical in public of their successors. He imagines Menino would have done the same had he not died soon after Walsh was first elected mayor.

Don’t get me wrong—that doesn’t mean Bostonians won’t see Walsh back in the political arena, at least at some point and in some way. After all, he admits, “I do miss politics. The game of politics, it’s who I am. It’s in my bones and my body.”

Former Boston mayor Thomas Menino, mayor Marty Walsh, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Governor Deval Patrick, and Tom Grilk, Executive Director, Boston Athletic Association stand together during the flag raising ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings on Boylston Street near the finish line on April 15, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. / Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

While some dream of Walsh running for mayor again, others picture him cleverly pulling strings behind the scenes and manipulating events in the city. As evidence, one local political consultant alleges that during the 2021 mayoral race, Walsh placed operatives within each candidate’s campaign to be his eyes and ears. Perhaps. But actually, Walsh had limited means for such manipulations.

That’s because as labor secretary, Walsh was precluded by the Hatch Act from engaging in political activity. Not only that, but Boston’s political world has changed a lot since he was in office. Former Governor Charlie Baker, with whom Walsh developed a strong relationship, is gone from the State House. Former rival Wu is mayor. Nearly half of Boston’s city councilors have taken their seats since Walsh left office. More broadly, the ideological and demographic sands that were already shifting under Walsh when he was mayor have now remade the entire landscape. Progressive racial and ethnic minorities now dominate the city council, while Walsh’s pal Frank Baker is not running for re-election. Similar turnover has occurred at many of Boston’s corporations and nonprofit institutions.

At the same time, though, none of this means that Walsh lacks contacts in high places. As he points out, current Senate president “Karen Spilka sat right behind me in the House, and [U.S. Congresswoman] Katherine Clark sat two seats over from me.” He also has good relationships with Governor Maura Healey, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and Auditor Diana DiZoglio, in addition to Driscoll. Business and nonprofit leaders throughout the city all gladly take his call—and he is not afraid to leverage those friendships when he chooses.

For proof, look no further than the NAACP National Convention taking place in Boston this summer, says Boston Branch president Tanisha Sullivan. “He has been incredibly helpful in connecting us with the business community,” she says, “and with our fundraising and the participation of corporations and other entities.” Former mayoral candidate and city council member Annissa Essaibi George, now president and CEO of Big Sister Boston, echoes the sentiment, telling me that Walsh “continues to be involved, even after leaving the mayor’s office, in projects and issues,” including the Gavin Foundation and the Gosnold behavioral health and substance abuse organization, which gave out its first annual Martin J. Walsh Alumni Award last year.

NHLPA Executive Director Marty J. Walsh speaks on June 27, 2023 in Antioch, Tennessee. / Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

When we recently spoke, Walsh was in Phoenix on a national tour in his role as the National Hockey League Players’ Association union president, spending a lot of his time visiting NHL cities, meeting players and owners, and learning about each team. He is finding it quite different from the Boston Building Trades unions, which he led and belonged to for years—and from the municipal unions he negotiated with as mayor. In his new job, Walsh will reportedly earn a $3 million annual salary—many multiples of his previous earnings. He will also, for the first time in a quarter century, be free from the ethical entanglements that limit elected and appointed officials. So give him a little time to get his skating legs under him, and then he’ll likely have a sense of what more he can take on and what he wants to do next. “When I was a [state] rep, I wanted to be mayor,” he says. “When I was mayor, I didn’t really have a thought process for after that.” With enough time, he might just find that he now has the means and the opportunity to pursue his next political chapter.

Until then, expect any number of companies, charities, schools, and cultural institutions to invite the former mayor onto their boards or to help in other roles. He’ll have his pick. He can help any cause in the city immeasurably and already has relationships with many. Indeed, at least one local company, run by longtime friends of Walsh, tried to recruit him for a top position while he was still at the U.S. labor department.

Another benefit of his new position? Walsh can freely offer public opinions on candidates, legislation, and issues facing the city. Indeed, op-ed pages, speaking forums, and talk shows are always open to him, not to mention the online and social media opportunities to speak unfiltered to his fellow Bostonians.

As a result, Walsh now has a bigger profile than ever on the national and international level and will have opportunities available on bigger stages than he’s ever had before. Perhaps Boston will prove too small a pond for his interests now. But there is always the possibility that you’ll be able to vote for (or against) him again someday. After all, Driscoll says, “No one who’s been in that kind of office ever shuts the door to the future. It’s always a possibility.”

First published in the print edition of the July 2023 issue with the headline “Just What Is Marty Walsh up to, Anyway?”